North Thailand - 2 The North by the Book


Oct 23, 2009
Excerpt: After my unsuccessful search for a Laughing Buddha image, I followed a small guidebook's advises to circle back to Chiangmai through Nan. My itinerary brought me around the eastern part of the North, on other stunning Thai roads, through spectacular landscapes and bucolic villages.

Rambling Around North Thailand

Second part : The North by the Book

See also, part 1 – The Quest for the Laughing Buddha:
North Thailand - 1 The quest for the Lauging Buddha

and its prologue in the foot note (1)

The complete photo story can be found at :
Picasa Web Albums - Jurgen Chopard - North Th - By...

Chiang Khong to Nan

“If you've enjoyed the riding from Chiang Mai so far,
don't return to Chiang Mai from Chiang Saen,
but continue on to Nan following the Lao border”(2).

Driving down route 1129, I remembered the advice from David Unkovich's guidebook: “A motorcycle guide to the Golden Triangle”(2). I had just left behind me Chiang Saen and Wat Pa Ngao, the last step in an unsuccessful quest for a Laughing Buddha image; reaching a temporary deadlock in my search. For my way back, I followed this recommendation and returned home: “going by the book (2)”.

See also the first part: North Thailand - 1 The quest for the Lauging Buddha

This region was new territory for me, and I delighted in the well paved road, smoothly winding and meandering south, close to the river. The only dark point was the horizon, a black and menacing curtain, enshrouding the mountains top. At a bifurcation, I chose to follow byway 4007, closer to the Mekong, and toward a brighter sky.

Passing suitable shelters, I memorized their locations as possible refuges to flee from a downpour. I had just spotted a charming restaurant when the first drops hit me and, after a quick volt-face, I was rushing back, hoping that the venerable AX1 could stand the pace of the arriving rain. “Rai Saen Arun Resort” was close and I arrived just in time. An enjoyable lunch allowed me to wait till the storm had dried out.

Whilst resting, I pondered about the need to ride a bike in the rainy season. The urge to inaugurate my “old lady” and to reconnect past memories had been strong; despite September's heavy downpour statistics.

The impact of slippery roads, reduced visibility, and the risk for the driver and its bundled “gadgets” to become wet, are reduce with an adequate preparation; I had neglected this point for my adventure. The low season sees less tourist activities, offers better price deals and cooled down temperatures. But, for me, the most important element is to stretch the time available to heal the “rambling fever” on a bike. Now, with the right equipment, the rain has no effect on my trips anymore, it does not affect my determination to travel on two wheels.

After leaving my hiding, I completed the last stretch to Chiang Khong, on wet roads and glided to my destination through fresh and clean air, without further showers.




“Ban Tam Mi La G/House ...One of the loveliest g/houses in N. Thailand”, was the guidebook's (2) recommendation. I immediately liked this residence, who became my second home. During later trips around this region, I frequently used it to relax or as a stopover to cross into Laos. David Unkovich(2) is a frequent and well known guest at this place and in the hangouts that I patronized for the evening. I decided to catch up with him in Chiangmai, and also learned about GT-rider website and maps; a first contact with the most useful source of information for all my further ballades.



I admire waterways, with a predilection for the mythic Mekong. He is South-East Asia's mother river, the great stream linking Indochina, he fertilizes a large basin, widely covering Thailand and Laos. Pure water flows from the Himalayas and is mixed, on a course of five thousand kilometers, with various tributaries, sustaining an exceptional biodiversity, with sirens (dugongs), freshwater dolphins, and giant catfish. Even the legendary Naga lives in this waters, staging an annual fireballs spectacle. Unfortunately, all the species are on the verge of extinction.

Chiang Khong is a good deck to observe the changing mood of this fascinating river. Soon, a new bridge will link Asian Highway 3 to Laos, reducing the lorry traffic through the small city. Watching the waterflow also generates downhearted thoughts. Blasting rocks and building more dams will have uncontrolled effects on the environment of the Mekong, taming it behind recognition and cutting down his nutrient power (4).




Even so Thai food is my favorite treat, I also delight in a “continental” style breakfast; at Tammila I find the right items to start a happy day.

Bidding farewell to Chiang Khong, I continued my journey toward route 1155. A short drive along the river, some breaks at viewpoints, and the roads climbs the mountains, after Wiang Kaen, following the border line and leaving the Mekong escape totally to Laos.




Sometimes steep, nicely undulating, climbing hills and plunging again, crossing small villages, this is another enjoyable ride. During the rainy season, tender rice fields add delicate shades to a landscape perfumed with the scent of herbs and humid forests. Rain drops sometimes tambourined on my shield, but their pace was never fast enough to moister the road, and furtive sunshine always poked through the clouds.

The last sectors, over Song Kwae and Pua, down to Nan, are on route 1148, and finally, on route 1080.







In Nan, I checked in to Devaraj hotel, a large provincial type accommodation, with a swimming pool and a safe parking for bikes. For diner, I went to Da Dario's pizzeria; a recommendation in my guide: “ You haven't been to Nan, unless you've eaten at Paolo's! “(2). I was keen to greet a Swiss compatriot but, unfortunately, and for the first time, my small book showed his age; Paolo had passed away, but his widow was still running the place.




Doi Pu Kha

“You can't claim to having ridden N.Thailand
until you've done the Doi Pukha loop”(2)

I was successful in considering other expert advices from: “A motorcycle guide to the Golden Triangle”(2), and had to follow this tip. More than ten years after the book's publication, many other itineraries are made available for bikers. Nevertheless, and after several rides along this stretch, I still agree with David's opinion, it is a highlight of the region.

In the morning, before my departure for the loop, it was already raining in Nan. A tropical depression had entered Vietnam and extended his activity to Thailand. I decided, however, to take a chance and to brave the moderate shower. Just outside the city, on route 1080 to Pua, the downpour stopped; I would, nevertheless, play hide and seek with the clouds all day long.

The way up to the National Park is on route 1256. As I climbed, fog was blanketing the scenery, reducing the visibility but adding magic to the landscape. It is a stunning trail, steep and winding, sometimes following a narrow mountain rim, sometimes gliding through exhilarating rollercoasts. The altitude climbs to 2'136 meter, on Doi Phuka and the air, with 26 degrees, was fresh for Thailand. In the forest, rare Chompoo trees, surviving in their last natural environment, are a well known attraction.















From Bo Klua, on the other side of the mountain, the way back to Nan is on route 1081 and 1169. The horizon was still murky, but the itinerary, passing lush hills on winding and deserted roads provides a fancy ride. The downpour seemed to follow the summits and only became a concern when I had to climb toward the heights.

Heavy rain suddenly surprised me and, without a shelter in sight, I stopped to slip in a pelerine. This was my only waterproof cover, a gear bought in a market in Chiangmai. It had an opening for an additional passenger, a translucent front for the light and covers for the mirrors; a smart design. Its only downside was the impossibility to drive a bike under it.

Progressing at slow pace, I crossed a roadside shack, appropriate to host me for a while. After some rest, I kept my camera in her bag and hit the road again. The remaining drizzle soon dried out, leaving only a wet road and large puddles as a testimonial of the downpour.












The morning, in Nan, was considerably wet; but sunny sky waited for me in the afternoon. I took the opportunity to swim in Devaraj's pool and to spend a second evening rambling around the city center.

Phayao (5)

Next morning, broadcast news commented on Ketsana, a devastating and deadly typhoon. After hitting the Philippines, it crossed land into Vietnam and rushed to Thailand. This was the explanation of the stormy weather in the region.

It was again Sunday, and in the early hours, the roads around Nan were nearly deserted. Searching for a small mountain trail, I found only an empty highway, with joggers and packs of dogs, but, after some advice, I bumped into route 1091, and climbed the mountain in direction on Chiang Muan.









Asking for the best road to Phayao, I got an enlightening answer: “This one is klai, that one glai”. The obvious (far-narrow) nuance was difficult to catch for my “farang” ears, and I decided to venture over the mountain trail, on route 1251, to Doi Phu Nang National Park (Dok Khamtai). This sloping drive is probably the best choice, and a small village, with lovely wooden houses, makes a good “noodle” stop, before starting the itinerary.





My ascent drove me closer to a menacing curtain, draping the mountain top. As it was still early in the day, I expected the air to carry the water for a while, and when I passed the summit, the sight toward the plain was brighter. I arrived in Phayao before noon, with a totally dry windshield. My first call was at a small coffee shop, “Tha Kwan”, on the shore of the lake. I also found a “Homestay” lodging near to it.






A long promenade, for a casual walk or drive, runs along the waterfront of this charming city. Despite a permanent holiday mood, few tourists patronize this place during the low season. Lake Phayao is a largest artificial reservoir, the biggest fresh water surface in north Thailand. I was again lucky with the weather, as heavy rain had washed the region the day before. My arrival was greeted with a half sunny sky, black clouds still obscuring the western mountains.






Another attraction is the 500 years old submerged temple Wat Tilokaram. The project to recall it from the water, by building a protective wall, is opposed by environmentalists and, for the time being, the access to the appearing Buddha image is by sculling boats. Energetic rowers serve as guide, prone to chat and joke with their passengers. Soon, an amazed neighborhood was informed that I had just arrived from Nan. I never understood why this was great news; the “return of the farangs” might mark the end of the rainy season.










Another interesting temple is Wat Si Khom Kham, hosting the largest Chiang Saen style Buddha image in Lanna Thai (Phra Chao Ong Luang). On the same compound, infamous sculptures stage an insight in a particularly frightening Buddhist hell.





In the early morning, the sky was only punctuated with cotton ball cumulus and I decided to circle the lake before driving back home. Starting north, than on the west shore, back on route 1193, I stopped at Wat Analayo. It is famous for his large white Sukhothai Buddha image and affords panoramic views down to Kwan Phayao.






Many temples are build on the compound, around Wat Analayo, they are linked by shady mountain trails, some quite steep and slippery in the rainy season. It would be worth to reserve half a day to ramble around the hills and discover various religious edifices, sculptures and sights. My visit was too short, as I wanted to drive back to Chiangmai and the sky was again turning to darker hues.





Following the west rim of the lake, I got lost in small byroads, only directed by brief “Thai only” signboards. Finally I reached foggy route 120 and climbed the mist draped mountain. My first stop was at a “sala view point”, were the sight only reached to a narrow panel indicating the altitude: “891.493 meters”.

The link between Phayao and Mae Kachan provides another gorgeous ride. This road is sometimes steep, often winding, frequently shadowed by lush forests and with little traffic to care about. The meteorological conditions were a drawback, but I still enjoyed this last stretch before joining the main road to Chiangmai.





On route 118, I stopped at the first petrol station, but it was “out of order”, completely inundated. Again, I had escaped from the downpour. Finally, during this trip, I was lucky in playing with the clouds. Nevertheless, I have learned a lesson about the appropriated attire to ramble North Thailand during the rainy season.

Post scriptum: This is the right place, for me, to acknowledge David Unkovich's work as a pioneer and promoter of motorcycle tours in North Thailand and Laos. His small guidebook (2) was very helpful for my first ballade. I have now rambled another 35'000 kilometers around this region and his personal advises, accurate maps and the information from GT-rider website, have been the most valuable resources for my riding. I also met wonderful friends through this large online and on road community.


(1) Prologue of the first part - The Quest for the Laughing Buddha:

Friends, familiar with my "trip reports", will figure out the antecedence of this story. Pressed by newer endeavors, I left aside the pictures and notes of this journey, during two years. Now, I fancy to remember the good moments of this very first venture, another beginning after my retirement, a prelude to many cruises in Thailand and Laos.

(2) A motorcycle guide to the Golden Triangle
David Unkovich
Silkwormbooks, Chiangmai, 1998


(3) I have illustrated the itinerary between Chiangmai and Pua, over Phayao, Nan and Bo Klua, with a recent, story on gt-rider website, url:

The trail around the mountain, on route 1081 is also illustrated in another gt-rider trip report url:


(5)Phayao: see “The GT Riders Touring Guide to Phayao” Phayao


Rambling around North Thailand

Part 1 - The quest for the Lauging Buddha

Driving to Chiangrai
Mae Sai and Doi Thung
Temples near the Mekong

Part 2 - The North by the Book

Chiang Khong to Nan
Doi Pu Kha

Part 3 - A New Golden Triangle

Thoet Thai
Climbing to Doi Thung
The rim of the Mekong
Chiang Khon and the road back
Last edited by a moderator:


Aug 24, 2008
Gotta agree with Cat'n Slash, stunning photographs and sensational writeup. It is always a real treat to see another report and say, I've been there, I have that photo........

My gang, Nov 2010



Oct 23, 2009
Thank You friends. For Deano, you can tell that your pic is more recent because of the sticker craze on the signboard :) Last time I went through it, they had added a small cardboard asking people (in Thai) not stick stuff anymore!

You have a nice party, with a beautiful sunflower background ... Nearly Mae Hong Son in November :)



Oct 23, 2009
This my follow-up storty of "A Quest for the Laughing Buddha" ... the way back to Chiangmai.

That's no big trip, however, even two years later, I fancy to write about this biking milestone, the first venture after my retirement. Furthermore, I wanted to acknowledge the help and friendship of David Unkovich. I used his small guidebook as my first source of information, even before discovering the GTR site and community.

As for my laughing Buddha, I finally found it, one year later and through David's hint ... but this is the story of the third part. In between, I have updated my bike, my camera, and my waterproof gear.


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Another gem of a report. Thanks.

Also thank you very much for your wonderful contributions to GT Rider.
I am well pleased that the old bikers bible & the GTR website have helped you enjoy life here much more.